One of the privileges of traveling off trail, something often but not necessarily associated with hunting, is getting to know how animals use the landscape, season to season.
We’ve had an atypical autumn in Montana, with big storms and cold temperatures in September and October giving way to moderate temps and a big melt off in the past few weeks. The impact of this divergence from the norm was, recently, on stark display in one of my favorite places.
As in many corners of Montana, here the first tendrils of winter cause elk to move out of the alpine, and eventually to winter out on the prairie, or at least down in the flats. I assume this process isn’t as simple as a certain amount of snow forcing movement, as regular freezing temps up high must impact the quality of feed. In any case, there are a lot of elk in this area, and being elk, they are creatures of habit. They take predictable stops along their annual journey, one of which is a series of hanging meadows that face southwest, where sun and wind can reliably strip the grass, and aspens, bare.
Evidence suggests that the herd had an early, and extended, stay.
Rarely have I see elk trails so freshly beaten in, and never have I seen so much elk shit in such profusion over so many acres. The herd had moved on, and their tracks, scat, and trails, along with the grasses they had clipped neatly down and the bark they had ravaged with antlers and teeth, were all frozen in place by the nearness of winter. Only the hard crust of melting snow revealed that it had been a week, at least, since any elk were present.
What you also get to see, this late in the year, is a hint of what was, a century ago and pre-dam, surely the most striking 5 miles in the Bob. Note the hanging spring right of center in the featured image, which all spring and summer is 20 feet underwater. These elk spend all summer and winter in game ranges created around the same time as the reservoir, to guard against the march of the humans. There are accounts of rangers in the Bob, shortly after the creation of the Forest Service, making a 2 week patrol from Spotted Bear through the North Fork of the Sun and back via Danaher and seeing no mammals save grouse and squirrels. At the same time that game reserves, hunting seasons, and Pittman-Robertson brought back the elk, the reservoir was built, and ensured the ranches and farms downstream steady water through the fall.
I’m happy I get to see those hills full of elk. I’m bummed I’ll never get to see the main river canyon full of the ponderosa and cottonwood it surely had 150 years ago.